Charleston County Courthouse, South Carolina

The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was among the first black regiments to take up arms for the Union during the Civil War. The 54th was composed predominantly of free blacks from the North including two sons of the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The use of black troops in combat was highly controversial in both the North and the South. In the northern states, it was widely believed that black soldiers were not as dependable as their white counterparts. In the South, the use of black soldiers was met with great disdain. So much so, that the Confederate Government issued a proclamation stating that any colored soldiers captured at arms against the Confederacy would be sold into slavery, and any white officers leading black troops would be put to death. The 54th Massachusetts was organized in 1863 as a test case in this controversial debate. Unlike earlier black regiments, the 54th was equipped and trained as well as white regiments. On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts led the attack on Battery Wagner, a part of the coastal defenses of Charleston. In a vicious assault, the 54th charged into the teeth of the forts defenses. The attack penetrated the Confederate lines, and under withering musket and cannon fire the flag carried by the 54th was planted atop the parapet of Battery Wagner. The intense fire from the Confederates and the staggering casualties, including the regiments Colonel, Robert Shaw and over 250 men eventually forced the 54th to retreat. In the aftermath of the assault, some 60 members of the 54th were captured and taken to the Charleston Jail to await trail for insurrection. Two of these men, a sergeant and a corporal, were tried for their lives at the Charleston County Courthouse. With the help of local barrister and northern sympathizer, Nelson Mitchell, the men were aquitted. Spared the death penalty, the men of the 54th remained imprisoned until the end of the war. They were finally released in the spring of 1865. Today, the Courthouse where the trial took place, as well as the jail still stand.

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Links: Charleston County Court House

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